"We're on the precipice of redefining public safety communications," said Charles Dowd, deputy chief with the New York City Police Department, earlier this year when Congress passed legislation that reallocated the 700 MHz D-Block spectrum (Band 14) to public safety. "This is going to transform public safety communications the same way that two-way radio did in the 1930s. That's how big of a change this is going to be."
I've followed the development of FirstNet with great personal and professional interest, and Chief Dowd's enthusiasm sums up my own views about the future of public safety. For the past four years I've been working with a group of exceptional engineers at Raytheon. The knowledge they've shared has made me even more excited to see the development of a broadband network that can go far beyond the limited capabilities and available technology first responders have today.
The FirstNet board has just held its initial meeting. The board includes 12 public sector members; the remaining three members represent the federal government. FirstNet (the First Responder Network Authority) will oversee the building and operation of the new nationwide public safety broadband network.
The board has four outstanding people representing the operator's needs of a new system, one member each to represent police chiefs, the fire service, EMS and the National Sheriffs' Association. This is fantastic. The challenge for the other board members will be listening to this minority group. The board as a whole can't allow the politics of business and Congress to shape a system with limited capabilities and limited competition, like we currently have in the public safety field.
I view this challenge through simplistic, definable areas with complex and competing interests on all sides of the issues. Ultimately, I believe FirstNet can most effectively move forward with these ground rules:
- Putting the operational needs of public safety first. This should outweigh all other issues in FirstNet's decision-making process.
- Local autonomy in a national system should be allowed otherwise the push back from these local entities will doom the effort.
- Once built, the processes and applications of the system must be based on a platform that allows any agency to tailor it to their own needs. No one entity should control that process, otherwise manipulation by competing industry interests will limit capability, much as it does today.
After spending most of my adult life serving in public safety, I know that departments and agencies have long had to make do with what a small group of companies have been willing to build based on profit margins. Industry should respond to definable operational needs and demands in dynamic, well-crafted RFPs.
The business world won't let go of the status quo easily. But I'm confident that public safety leadership has the strong will to control the future by placing their operational needs at the forefront in FirstNet discussions. If this happens, we would see public safety designing systems that work for them and industry responding to those needs—for the first time.
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